Interview, noun: a formal meeting at which someone is asked questions in order to find out if they are suitable for a job,” (Collins English Dictionary). No wonder return to work interviews following sickness absence are often feared by employees and avoided by managers. Can they be re-framed to the benefit of both?

What are return to work interviews?

Contrary to the Collins dictionary definition, a return to work interview is usually an informal discussion with an employee upon their return to work following a period of sickness absence. Informal yes, but with the following important aims:

  • to discuss the reason(s) for the employee’s absence and the likelihood of any further period(s) of absence
  • to provide a forum for support for the employee
  • to monitor the employee’s absence as part of a sickness absence management programme.

Why bother?

At byrne∙dean we spend a lot of time with managers exploring ways in which they can engage with their team such that each member of the team feels engaged, valued and supported. A return to work discussion is exactly that type of engagement. Used sensitively and appropriately, it can help employees feel valued and heard.

If you are a manager, it goes without saying that your time is in high demand, (ask any busy PA). Finding the time for a one-to-one shows an employee that they matter. You may also discover more than you knew before, for example the employee might be struggling with personal issues or difficulties at work but hasn’t felt able to talk about it before.

Let’s also not forget the morale and productivity of the full team which can take a hit when covering for employees who are absent on sick leave. Team members are much more likely to go the extra mile when they can see that a colleague off sick is being proactively managed and supported.

On the flip-side, any sickness absence which is not genuine is likely to reduce where employees know that a return to work meeting will be diarised when they get back to the office as a matter of course. In its advisory booklet “Managing attendance and employee turnover” ACAS states that early intervention by managers and good communication with employees are key ingredients in managing attendance.

In our experience, and notwithstanding the benefits, managers often shy away from a return to work discussion on the basis that they perceive it could be awkward or difficult. Our recommendation is not to do that but instead to walk towards the discussion. Just like any form of engagement with employees on issues which aren’t run-of-the-mill, return to work discussions will become easier and feel more natural the more of them you do.

So how to do it? 10 top tips for managers

  1. Approach the meeting with a positive mindset - not as a box that HR has told you to tick or as an opportunity to lay down the law with the employee
  2. Think about when and where you will meet – talk to the employee ideally on the first day they return to work. Meet somewhere which is private – is there anywhere less visible than your office and without the barrier of a desk?
  3. Keep the conversation informal and relaxed and watch your body language – make direct eye contact, lean forward, no folded arms or rolling eyes
  4. Ask the first and very important question: How are you feeling?”. Use open questions like this throughout the conversation to encourage open dialogue. And don’t forget to welcome the employee back to work: bring them up to speed with anything key that has happened in their absence including any social events / team news
  5. Listen more (80%) and talk less (20%) – be supportive, empathetic and patient
  6. Ask if the employee has visited their GP or other medical practitioner and, if so, what support and/or treatment they have received. Remember that you are not expected to be a medical expert and so you may need further information eg from Occupational Health
  7. Ask if there is anything you can do to help? Support comes in all shapes and sizes and could include:- additional training- more regular breaks- moving start / finish times- changing equipment / making workplace adjustments- recommending an Employee Assistance Programme for counselling- a period of flexible working etcEmployers have a legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments in any event in respect of employees with a disability which is defined broadly. HR can advise you
  8. Where absence levels are giving cause for concern explain that a formal attendance management process may need to be implemented if attendance levels don’t improve. This can of course a be difficult message to deliver but you shouldn’t shy away from doing so where it’s appropriate. It will no doubt be unwelcome news for your employee, but the flip-side is that he or she is entitled to know in advance when a formal process might be on the cards. Explain the impact that the absences have had on the team, on service levels etc but avoid being critical of the employee
  9. Wrap up: agree any actions (including yours), including timeframes, and any review period where appropriate
  10. Keep a record of the discussion: initial meetings may need no more than a diary note but where absences are repeated, it will be important to keep a clear record of the points discussed and any actions agreed, for example by way of a short email to the employee

And finally, when was the last time you went for an interview? How did you feel? Probably somewhat anxious, possibly even fearful, maybe you didn’t sleep too well the night before? Now imagine doing that after a period of being unwell. So let’s not do it. Let’s not “interview” employees when they’ve been away sick. Instead, let’s sit down, listen and put the employee’s thoughts and feelings front and centre. You might just be surprised at how well your employee feels afterwards.